THE whisper went around AESSEAL New York Stadium ... Michael Smith was moving to Newcastle United.
The Rotherham United striker was occupying a seat in the West Stand at the Millers ground one evening last week while several kids games were taking place on the pitch.
The youngsters spotted the Magpies shirt the Geordie was holding up and immediately thought this was the photoshoot as he signed for his home-town club.
What they hadn’t seen was the Alan Shearer signature on the framed jersey.
‘Smudge’ wasn’t at New York to join the Toon, he was there to receive special recognition for four and a half years of sterling service for the Millers.
Supporters had clubbed together to buy their frontman a keepsake he will treasure for the rest of his life.
“It’s humbling,” the 30-year-old said. “I’ve been around professional football for 12 years and never known anything like it. I’m really touched that people have appreciated me while I’ve been here.
“In my eyes, I’ve just been doing my job, but it obviously means a lot to a lot of people. To represent this club and the fans and to score goals for them is a massive thing for me.”
Smith had spent all season trying to hit the 25-goal target set by Richie Barker that would have seen the Rotherham number two handing over his own signed Shearer shirt that he describes as one of his prized possessions.
The centre-forward reached a quarter of a century but his strikes in the Papa John’s Trophy didn’t count, leaving him five short of the required tally.
That’s when Millers fans rallied round for the Newcastle fanatic who grew up watching Shearer perform at St James’ Park and regularly badgering the England international for his signature.
“Without doubt, he’s been the number-one player in my life,” Smith said. “What he did for the club was incredible.
“As a kid, I lived five minutes from the training ground and I used to go up there on my bike with my mates and watch the squad train.
“I used to ask him for his autograph all the time; I’ve got so much stupid stuff with his signature on it. I used to ask the players for their drinks bottles after training and get them to sign them.”
After the presentation, the player carefully put the framed souvenir back in its box and placed it gently in the boot of his car before heading home to partner Hannah and young daughter Poppy at the family home in north Barnsley.
“Where will it go? It’s a conversation I’m going to have to have with my missus,” he said. “It’s certainly going up somewhere!
“We’re looking to move house because we’re outgrowing the one we’re in now so when we do I’m going to try to bag myself a ‘lad’s pad’ and hang it up in there.”
Smith may leave the Millers in the summer even though chairman Tony Stewart has gone as far as he possibly can with an offer to tempt him to stay. The frontman is out of contract and attracting the attention of bigger clubs
If he does depart, it will be a with a heavy heart, particularly after such a gesture from the club’s followers.
“This shirt means so much to me,” he said. “It’s not just the shirt, it’s the story that comes with it: that fans care enough about me to raise money so I can have it.”
Not his first Shearer signature. But the one that he holds most dear.
KEV Johnson is the supporter who organised the Michael Smith collection that raised a grand total of £2,320.
The cost of the Alan Shearer memento was less than £200 thanks to FrameSmart, the Halifax-based sporting-memorabilia company that supplied it, waiving their profit.
It meant that more than £2,000 was left over to be donated to Rotherham Hospice.
Johnson, holder of a corporate season ticket at New York Stadium, said: “We just thought that anything over the cost of the shirt would be a bonus.
“To get well above £2,000 is amazing. I never expected that much in a million years. Around 200 supporters donated. We have good fans at Rotherham.
“Donations have ranged from £2 to £50 and it was lovely to see one come in from Warney (manager Paul Warne) as well.
“I’d like to think this will sway Smudge towards staying but if it doesn’t then what a leaving present for him, to know that he’s this well thought of.
Smudge gives one of his Millers shirts to Kev Johnson
“I’ve supported Rotherham for 40-odd years and I’ve never known something like this happen for a player. I hope it’s a ‘thank you’ for him, not a ‘goodbye’.”
Smith has given Johnson a signed Millers shirt bearing his squad number, 24, and has also made a donation to swell the final figure beyond £2,320.
“I’m really pleased that the hospice is benefiting as well,” the striker said. “I can’t thank the supporters enough.
“Me and the other players have done a lot of work with the hospice over the years and the work the staff do there is just amazing. The place is a real credit to the town.”
ROTHERHAM United boss Paul Warne has sent a personal message to Kev Johnson:
“This is amazing. Smudge will love it; not just the gift but the gesture. It’s heart-warming that people want to contribute. Fans of our club astound me for the right reason on numerous occasions.
“I believe that when Smudge walks past it in his house it will always make him smile. It will be an overpowering feeling for him to know that people like him enough to do this sort of thing for him.
“We can all go through life and just exist. Or we can do what you’ve done here: think: ‘No, I’m going to do something selfless that I know will bring great joy to someone.’
“Michael is a beautiful person and will honestly be touched by this amazing gesture. Please pass on my gratitude to everyone involved.
“It makes me proud to manage our club when I know our fan base is made up of great people like you.”
MILLERS honorary life-president John Breckin is a big supporter of Rotherham Hospice where his wife, Denise, received care before her death in 2006.
He said: “I would like to thank Kev and all of the wonderful Rotherham fans on behalf of the hospice for the money raised. Once again, I’m totally overwhelmed by how this town is supporting this wonderful facility.”